Telluride 2014: Jon Stewart and “Rosewater”

Jon Stewart makes a notable directorial debut with “Rosewater”, the true story of journalist Maziar Bahari returning to Iran to cover the elections in 2009 who is arrested as a spy and imprisoned. Stewart appeared at the Telluride Film Festival with Bahari and Gael Garcia Bernal who portrays him in the film. Stewart and Bahari collaborated on the screenplay.

Jon Stewart at Telluride Film Festival with moderator Annette Insdorf, in rear director Jean-Marc Valee ("Wild"), Gael Garcia Bernal

Jon Stewart at Telluride Film Festival with moderator Annette Insdorf, in rear director Jean-Marc Valee (“Wild”), Gael Garcia Bernal

At the time of the elections, Maziar Bahari (Bernal) finds an Iran where citizens are expected to follow the commands of the Supreme Leader. Government tries to exert control over all aspects of life, emphasized by large murals of Iranian leaders covering outdoor walls in Tehran. Low satellites on the roof provide some citizens with forbidden outside knowledge.

Gael Garcia Bernal in "Rosewater"

Gael Garcia Bernal in “Rosewater”

Clever visuals show how the internet provides clandestine contact and communication. The film gives a vivid sense of the turbulence on the streets of Tehran as Bahari and fellow journalists report on police beating street protesters. With a sense of humor, Bahari appears on Jon Stewart’s televised “Daily Show” and jokes about being a spy. Bahari is arrested by police and blindfolded, with his television “confession” used as evidence.

Bahari is placed in solitary confinement where he can hear a beating of another prisoner through the walls. Stewart gives the film an impressive immersion into an Iranian prison, with long monotonous times in a solitary cell broken by sudden bursts of violence, and details like ants in food.

Bernal (“The Motorcycle Diaries”) gives another strong performance, conveying Bahari’s anguish, determination to hold on, as well as fear that he may be forgotten on the outside. Bahari has an intriguing relationship with his main interrogator, nicknamed Rosewater from his smell. Their scenes often have a dark humor. Rosewater (Kim Bodnia) is also threatened by his superiors.

This film shows the importance of publicizing human rights abuse, emphasized by a message secretly written on a prison wall.

Jon Stewart at Telluride with moderator Annette Insdorf

Jon Stewart at Telluride with moderator Annette Insdorf

After the film, Telluride provided the unique opportunity of thoughtful post-film discussions with Jon Stewart, Maziar Bahari and Gael Garcia Bernal. When asked why the film was not in the Farsi language of the Iranian characters, Stewart responded that as he speaks English, having his film in anything but English would give it a “quiet inauthenticity” Stewart added that Maziar was a “touchstone” for him while making the film on Maziar’s life. Stewart said that Gael was “helpful” to his film directorial debut.

Stewart said that the film was shot in Jordan with the “Syrian War 45 minutes away” and in a “city of loudspeakers.” With these conditions, “between action and cut”, he wanted people to feel “welcome and comfortable” and “have fun.”

Stewart also spoke about improvising as well as including “serious dark humor” in “Rosewater”. As with Kafka, he added, the worst part may not be what you see, as Maziar was in a room alone for 4 months.

Jon Stewart with Annette Insdorf

Jon Stewart with Annette Insdorf

Maziar Bahari said “Rosewater” reflects how his usual prison experiences were “more banal and common.” He added that Iran shows the “confrontation between ideology and extremism.” He feels that believing “blindly can be funny.” He also described his experiences as “Kafkaesque”, adding comparisons to Chekhov. He said that the unexpected New Jersey jokes in the film “really happened” during his prison sentence.

On a serious note, Stewart feels that anger is “often justified” and “paranoia is often born of reality.” He believes that the UN is the “only opportunity” for long-term global solutions.

Stewart was more humorous at an outdoor panel discussion. He said that topical comedy with which he’s associated is “like egg salad”, delicious when fresh, but “a couple of days later tastes like shit.”